Private Members' Business. - Enforcement of Court Orders Bill, 1998: Second Stage.

(Mayo): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

I wish to share my time with Deputies Coveney and Ring.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

(Mayo): The purpose of this Bill is to provide a rational and relatively straightforward solution for an obvious folly that has become part and parcel of our court sentencing policy and our prison regime, that is the jailing of persons for the non-payment of fines and civil debts. An average of 10,000 offenders pass through the prison system each year. Some 2,100 or one in every five who pass through the gates of our prisons are so incarcerated because they have been unable or unwilling to pay the fines imposed on them. The nonsense of this is underlined by the fact that the offence in each case was not seen by the court as a custodial offence that merited prison. The judge deemed in each case that the appropriate penalty was a financial one, that the offence did not merit a prison sentence and that a prison sentence would only come into play in the event of the fine, imposed by the court, not being paid within a specified period.

It is patently obvious that to continue to jail 2,000 persons each year for minor and non-custodial offences or for the non-payment of civil debts achieves nothing but is costly and counterproductive. It puts huge pressure and strain on an already overcrowded prison system. One could hardly find a lengthier or more impressive list of negatives than those which attend the jailing of fine defaulters or civil debtors. The defaulter or the debtor is notified by the Garda that he or she is to be collected on a particular day at a particular time. If the Garda patrol car is used it involves a Garda driver and two other gardaí to escort the prisoner to Mountjoy Jail. If private taxi or hackney transport is used two gardaí travel in the hired car from the prisoner's home to the place of detention. It costs between £200 and £300 for a taxi or a hackney car from a rural area depending on the length of the journey, the waiting time and the return journey. There is the additional cost of Garda overtime and meals. There is also the additional factor of the absence of two or three gardaí from their station for the best part of that day.

For each day the defaulter or civil debtor is detained in prison the taxpayer has to foot the Bill to the tune of £126 per day. Generally after a short period the person is moved to another place of detention involving further transport and personnel costs. The farce is further compounded when the individual is generally released having served only a fraction of the sentence because of the pressure on prison space. The revolving door simply keeps revolving. The end result is that it has cost the State a huge sum of money to jail a person for a relatively non-jailable offence. The person is released after a short period and the fine goes unpaid.

The operation and the continuation of such a ludicrous scheme is an abuse of an already overstretched prison system. It is also a gross abuse of the taxpayer who has to fork out a conservative £2.5 million when there are obvious and sensible alternative solutions available. I am not claiming to be the originator of the idea of keeping fined defaulters and debtors out of jail by dealing with them through a range of other sanctions and alternatives. The report of the committee of inquiry into the prison system, established by the Government in 1994 and chaired by Dr. T.K. Whitaker, recommended: "The committee considers that there should be a reliable statutory basis for confiscation of property or assets to enforce fines."

In June 1994 the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform published a five year plan entitled The Management of Offenders, the first chapter of which states:

There is, indeed, the view that alternatives to custody should be the only permissible form of sanction in the case of certain categories of offenders, such as fine defaulters or debtors. The imprisonment of such people is said to be wrong in principle. It is also seen as representing a completely unjustifiable waste of scarce resources.

The crime forum report, published in December 1998, speaks in similar tones. Unfortunately because it was published just before Christmas it did not receive the degree of attention, analysis or credit which it richly deserves. It is scathingly critical of the manner in which penal policy is operated here. One of the areas on which it focused was committals for the non-payment of fines. It states: "it seems a curious strategy in circumstances in which prisons are so overcrowded".

We have three expert reports commissioned by the Ministers for Justice of the day, all bearing the official stamp of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and all exhorting a change of policy as regards the jailing of fine defaulters and civil debtors.

I published this Bill on 26 May 1998. I deliberately held back bringing the Bill before the House in Private Members' time to see what action might be forthcoming from the Government side. The Minister will acknowledge I have repeatedly asked the Taoiseach on the Order of Business to indicate where exactly the Government stood in relation to fine defaulters and civil debtors. Invariably the Taoiseach's response has been that the Government's Attachment of Earnings Bill was at an early stage of preparation.

The Government published its most recent legislative programme on 26 January. Not alone is the Government's promised Attachment of Earnings Bill not among the list of 16 Bills to be published this term, it is not even on the subsequent list of 24 Bills in respect of which texts are being prepared and which, according to the programme, "will be published as soon as possible".

The promised Government Bill is among a list of 61 Bills "in respect of which heads have yet to be approved by Government". The list acknowledges that work is "at a preliminary stage in the Department". In other words, it is unlikely that the proposed Bill will see the light of day even if the Government were to run to its full term.

While the Minister will make the point that even though 2,100 fine defaulters and civil debtors pass through the prison system each year, they constitute only between 1 per cent and 1.5 per cent of the prison population at any one time. That may well be true because of the farcical revolving door system and prison overcrowding but even at 1 per cent or 1.5 per cent it means that on any one day 40 valuable prison spaces, which should be reserved for people of proven criminal intent and who pose threats to society, are being wasted on people who are essentially non-criminal.

The Bill introduces attachment of earnings orders for those in employment, attachment of welfare orders for those on social welfare, a structured means inquiry so that the repayment of the fines or civil debts are levied in accordance with the defaulters' or the debtors' means and ability to pay. The court also has the option to extend community service orders where appropriate. The court is empowered to extend the time for payment of fines. There is also a provision to allow fines to be paid in instalments. A scheme of money payment service orders is introduced where advice and assistance on repayment of fines and civil debts are provided by the Probation and Welfare Service.

Section 4 empowers the court to order that periodic deductions are made from the earnings of the debtor or defaulter.

The court must have regard to normal deduction rates and the protected earnings rate. The attachment order will specify the amount to be paid, a period over which such deductions are to be made and any costs which may have been incurred by a failure to meet the original fine or debt payment. The introduction of the protected earnings rate means that due regard must be had to the ability to pay so that the burden of the repayments will not lead to further defaulting.

Section 5 sets down procedures for the notification to employers of an attachment of earnings order by the court clerk or registrar. It requires an employer to comply with an attachment order in respect of a civil debtor or fine defaulter in his employment. If the debtor or defaulter is either not in the employer's employment or has ceased to be his employee, the employer must, within ten days of receiving the order, notify the court to that effect. Where deductions are made on foot of attachment orders, the employer shall give the defaulter or debtor a written statement of the total amount paid. The debtor or defaulter is obliged by section 6 to provide to the court full details of his employer, his earnings, and his expected earnings, and this must be duly certified by the employer.

Section 7 deals with a change of employment on the part of the defaulter or debtor. When this takes place the debtor or defaulter must notify the court within ten days of any such change and provide details of his earnings and expected earnings in his new employment. Likewise, the employer must confirm in writing to the court that he is the debtor's or defaulter's employer and confirm the employee's earnings and expected earnings.

Under section 8 the court may hear an application from either the employer or the debtor-defaulter as to whether a source of income is income for the purposes of this Bill. Section 9 deals with persons who have defaulted and who are employed in the public service. It designates the chief officer or secretary general of the Department or body as the person who has the defaulter-debtor in his employment. In the event of a doubt or dispute as to which Department, public body, organisation, authority or service is the appropriate employer of the debtor or defaulter, the matter, having been referred to him by the court shall be determined by the Minister for Finance.

In accordance with section 10, the court may make an order to vary or discharge an attachment of earnings order. Section 13 sets down the penalties for non-compliance with such orders or for knowingly providing false or misleading information in respect of employment or earnings. I must apologise to the House for the printer's error in section 13(2) of the Bill. The text should read as follows:

Where a person gives a court–

(a)a statement pursuant tosection 6, or

(b)a notification undersection 7,

that is to his knowledge false or misleading, he shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £200, or at the discretion of the court to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or both.

Section 14 provides for the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs to make deductions at source for debt or fine defaulters who are in receipt of social welfare payments and to transfer such deducted payments to the court. Central to this provision is the court inquiry as to the defaulter's means in order to ensure the deductions do not impose impossible burdens. This scheme parallels the procedures set down in earlier sections which apply to those in receipt of income from employment. In this section, however, provision is made for appeal and review.

The Criminal Justice (Community Service) Act, 1983, is amended and extended in the Bill to enable community service orders to be imposed as an alternative to attachment of earnings orders. Again, this is a useful and positive option to be available to a court.

Often a person who owes a fine is unable to meet the payment within the original time limits set down by the court. At present these people end up in jail, albeit for a day or a month. Section 16 introduces a sensible adjustment to existing practice whereby the fine defaulter can go back to the court to apply for an extension of time within which to pay. Having adjudicated on the merits of the case, the court makes its determination on the basis of the arguments advanced in support of such an extension.

When a fine is imposed by a court, its impact varies enormously according to the means of the person levied and his or her ability to pay. While a £100 or £200 fine would be of little consequence to people of considerable means and resources it could well impose impossible hardship on a person of modest means with a heavy mortgage, a large family and no access to borrowing. At present the hands of the law are tied – the gardaí cannot accept part-payment and invariably the person ends up in jail with all the attendant expense. Section 17 provides for instalment payment of fines. This is a logical measure designed to ensure the fines are paid in full while eliminating the over-punitive prison sanction and the waste of resources in the needless jailing of such people.

To assist fine defaulters in paying fines within the time set down by the court, section 18 enlists the assistance of the Probation and Welfare Service. The introduction of money payment supervision orders enables defaulters to plan and make repayments in a streamlined and structured way under the guidance and assistance of a probation and welfare officer. In the event of default, the officer in question makes a written or oral report to the court and it is a matter for the court to decide what further action to take.

The Bill is by no means the complete antidote to the many problems besetting our prison service. It is, however, a pragmatic, practical, and relatively straightforward way of dealing with a costly, negative and outdated practice which should have been tackled long ago. I therefore hope the Minister will see his way to accept the Bill on Second Stage and allow it to proceed to Committee Stage. If aspects of the Bill require improvement let us do so collectively in committee. Let us not long-finger once again the opportunity with which we are now presented. Each year this issue remains unaddressed the cost to the taxpayer is £2.5 million, at a conservative estimate, in terms of transport, prison accommodation, Garda overtime, lost Garda time, and fines forfeited by the State.

We need to look objectively at what the huge body of expert available evidence and opinion is telling us about our prison service. It is indefensible that we should continue to pour millions of pounds of taxpayers' money into a system which is a proven failure. There is no holistic thinking on or clear philosophy of what our prison system is supposed to achieve. Without clear visions, aims, and objectives there is no yardstick to judge how our prisons are achieving or performing. When will we stand back and ask ourselves the honest questions about the prison service? When will we set down performance criteria?

In the wake of so many commentaries on the performance of the prison service, it is incredible that we have failed to tackle the fundamental failings of the system.

The 1984 Whitaker report was an official Department report, as was Management of Offenders – a Five Year Plan, issued in 1994, the discussion paper, Tackling Crime, issued in 1997, and the National Crime Forum report of 1998, commissioned by the present Minister. Essentially, all these documents which were commissioned by the Department agree on the need for major reform. However, none of them contains a more damning denunciation than the National Crime Forum report commissioned by the Minister. Paragraph after paragraph of the two chapters dealing with sanctions against offenders and the prison system spell out, in clear detail, how unsatisfactory is the prison system. It states:

Prison appears unsuited to the task of rehabilitating offenders and preventing them from reoffending. Indeed for many it can be the school which educates inmates to graduate to more serious crime.

That is not my assertion, it is a quotation from the National Crime Forum report. The report further states "A study carried out in Mountjoy in 1997 indicates that recidivism rates among Irish prisoners are extraordinarily high – a typical prisoner had 15 previous convictions, five non-custodial and ten custodial sentences."

The textbook referred to was that of a report carried out by a former employee of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the criminologist Paul O'Mahony, in which he sets down in graphic detail the results of a survey of 160 prisoners, namely, that there was a 70 per cent reoffending rate, an average conviction rate of 15, and 77 per cent of those surveyed had started in St. Patrick's Institution. So much for prison being a deterrent.

The National Crime Forum report states that "Remand prisoners who have not been found guilty in many cases spend more time in prison than convicted criminals. It also states that "There is a much greater use of imprisonment in the Irish criminal justice system than in many comparable countries", and we are second from the top in that regard. The report refers to the Netherlands, England, Wales, France, Australia and Canada as "comparable countries". Again these are not my assertions, they are direct quotations from the National Crime Forum report published in December 1998.

The report goes on to state that "Irish courts are far more likely to use custody as a sanction than those elsewhere..We send far more young people to prison than other administrations. Some one third of our prisoners in Ireland are under 21 years of age, despite the universal avowal that prison should be a last resort in dealing with young offenders." It is a terrible indictment that one third of prisoners are under 21 years of age. What hope have they of embarking on any kind of civilised existence?

The National Crime Forum report indicates:

There is an absence of coherent thinking about the problem. We do not appear to have a clear philosophy on the relative use of different forms of sanction..The number one issue facing the criminal justice system was the extent to which large numbers of those who at present receive custodial sentences could be dealt with by means of supervised community sanctions..Custodial sanctions are too readily available and are seen as the normal response to law breaking..76 per cent of prisoners – the 1991 figure – were committed for non-violent offences..The statistics for 1994 – published in May 1998 [this is a fundamental problem and means that we are four years in arrears in respect of vital statistics which should be a key component in addressing essential areas of criminal justice policy] show that the overwhelming majority of those committed to prison on conviction have been committed either for non-violent offences against property or more frequently for less serious offences.. Open prisons were acknowledged by most contributors to be a promising aspect of the system, but they are underused." The figures confirm the latter point, Loughan House and other open centres are not occupied by anything like their full complement while Mountjoy Prison is bursting at the seams.

The report goes on to state:

Prison officers have little opportunity to become involved in treatment, rehabilitation, counselling and other elements of what might constitute part of a plan for the management of prisoners..A planned programme could not at present be said to exist..Hostel accommodation or halfway house arrangements will be needed in certain cases. Such accommodation exists thanks to the good work of PACE but not in sufficient quantity..Ex-prisoners find themselves homeless or without money or under pressure to return to drug abuse..The situation in Mountjoy is very disquieting. It is clear that a number of prisoners in Mountjoy should be in a mental hospital..Of some 3,000 with a drug addiction problem who pass through prison each year, only 70 receive treatment and only nine are in any kind of structured treatment programme of the day.

I again stress that these are not my words, they originate from the National Crime Forum report which further states:

We heard accounts of some prisoners being released without any preparation for their re-entry into society because the probation and welfare service had not been informed of their impending release..many prisoners are released without any input from the probation and welfare service..The report of the prison chaplains for 1997-8 states that rape and sexual assaults are a reality in Irish prisons is almost certainly under-reported..Alternatives to imprisonment such as community service cost only a fraction of the cost of keeping someone in prison..The demand to build 2,000 places over the lifetime of the present Government bringing the total to 4,000 was frequently referred to. It was pointed out probably correctly that if we build those places we will almost certainly fill them. In other words to provide extra prison places would probably militate against any intention to substitute other sanctions for imprisonment.

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in this direct extract from the forum report.

The report and its predecessors point in the same direction, namely, that Irish penal policy is a failure, that there is a need to embark on major prison reform and that there is a need to refocus and to adopt policies that work rather than slavishly following the models of the past which neither deter nor rehabilitate, and which do not work.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Coveney:

Ten thousand inmates go through the prison system each year. That system has an annual operational cost of £100 million, the number of prison staff is more than 2,000 and the annual cost of keeping one prisoner in jail is £46,000. As the Minister knows, keeping people behind bars is an expensive business. Not only is it expensive, in many cases prison, regardless of the cost, is not the most appropriate solution when trying to deal with people who have broken the law. Perhaps we should consider what we are trying to achieve when we send someone to prison. Is it purely to punish them or are we trying to achieve some form of rehabilitation?

Some 70 per cent of those released from prison reoffend. Surely this is a clear indication that in most cases imprisonment as a method of reform and rehabilitation is a costly and counterproductive failure. Of course prison spaces are necessary. Justice must be done after a crime has been committed. Many offenders may be a danger to society and need to be behind bars. However, there is nothing soft or wrong in seeking alternatives to the prison system. There is much to be gained.

Perhaps the most obvious example of people who do not need to be behind bars are those who are imprisoned because they are unwilling or unable to pay fines that are due. At present, one in five people behind bars are in this situation. Are these people a danger to society? Do they need to be taken out of circulation? I do not think so. Prison should be the last resort rather than the first and only resort open to a judge and jury. It is ridiculous to suggest that the taxpayer should foot the bill for keeping these people in prison, particularly when the system is under such pressure. Not only that, the fines are never paid. If anything, the taxpayer is being fined. Instead of imprisonment, we should seek other alternatives.

The Bill will allow the courts to deal in a different way with people who cannot or will not pay fines. The offender will still be punished but it will not cost the State a fortune as at present. Allowing these offenders to pay what they owe over time and under supervision makes sense. Deputy Higgins explained how the system would work. The Bill would free up valuable prison spaces for those who should be behind bars and allow the system to operate more efficiently. Providing more prison spaces is not the answer.

I compliment my constituency colleague, Deputy Higgins, on introducing the Bill which the Government should accept. I have petitioned the Minister about many sad cases in County Mayo. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that those who owe money to the State or individuals do not end up in prison.

I compliment prison governors and their staff on being compassionate and understanding. We are lucky to have individuals of such quality working in the service. I have always found the governors with whom I have been in contact helpful in dealing with cases, some serious, others minor.

At times – this is not a criticism – judges are not on the ground in handing down fines. A constituent of mine in north Mayo was fined £500 for drink driving. The judge should have sent him to prison for three to six months as he continued to drink and his wife had to pay the fine. It was she who suffered. A £500 fine to someone on social welfare is akin to a £50,000 fine to a millionaire.

The Minister's predecessor, Deputy Owen, did an excellent job and introduced excellent legislation under which the Garda Síochána was given extra powers and resources to deal with the drug barons in our cities, particularly Dublin. It should now turn its attention to drug barons in rural Ireland. It is the drug barons and thugs who should be behind bars, not those who owe £500 to the State or individuals. I agree with Deputy Higgins that it should be possible to pay off small fines weekly by way of an attachment order against social welfare payments or property.

It is not popular to say this but there was nothing wrong with the petition system which should be reintroduced on Committee Stage. There are genuine hardship cases. It was wrong for the media to criticise the Minister whenever he reduced a fine. It is also wrong that fines are collected on behalf of the State by the Garda Síochána which has far more important work to do. The money used to pay fines is required by those on social welfare to feed and buy clothes for their children. I raised the matter with the Minister's predecessor and got into trouble with the media. A constituent of mine even won a prize from the Law Society. We should ignore the begrudgers. Barristers are on £1,400 to £1,500 per day. Those on social welfare are on £140 to £150 per week. There is another section of society which I will not name – a colleague of mine is in court next week – which is clogging the system. They should be dealt with. One should not be sent to jail for the non-payment of a fine.

I appeal to the Government to accept the Bill. If it has shortcomings, they can be rectified on Committee Stage.

Prison governors and their staff have been subject to much criticism during the years. They do a good job. I compliment them on being lenient and helpful to those who have not been committed for serious crimes and to their families. It is up to the Government to resolve the overtime problem by providing the necessary staff.

The untimely death of our colleague, the late Deputy Upton, casts a long shadow over this debate. Up to a couple of weeks ago he was his party's spokesperson on Justice, which meant that Deputy Jim Higgins and I spent a considerable amount of time over the past 18 months with him in this Chamber debating Justice issues. Eloquent tributes were paid to him by party leaders yesterday. It is, therefore, appropriate for me to take this opportunity to express my personal condolences to his family. In many ways he led an exemplary life. He was full of commitment, dedication, generosity and magnanimity. He brought credit to the House in almost everything he did as a Member and he distinguished it by his presence.

He was also a man of considerable good humour. On one occasion he told the House the holy hour was introduced in Dublin to try to get civil servants back to work after lunch. One of my more senior civil servants who, by tradition, shall be nameless, wrote me a note which I sent to Deputy Upton. It read: "It is not the first time that politicians have tried to blame civil servants". He greatly enjoyed that. He was a decent and honourable man and the House is a lesser place for his passing.

I commend Deputy Jim Higgins for preparing the Enforcement Of Court Orders Bill, 1998. Having produced many Private Members' Bills in my time as Opposition spokesman on Justice, I am well aware of the considerable amount of work which goes into them. While I disagree with much of the Deputy's analysis of the operation of the criminal justice system, I recognise that he has done the House a service by providing us with an opportunity to discuss some important issues which arise in relation to our law and practice in cases of non-payment of fines and debts.

Many of the issues raised by the Bill are ones that need to be addressed but, for reasons which I will explain, the Government does not accept that the approach which the Bill takes to these matters is prudent, sensible or practicable. We are concerned that what the Bill proposes could undermine the existing system for the payment of fines, could prove proportionately expensive to administer, could place impossible administrative burdens on both the courts and the gardaí and, despite claims made to the contrary, would make no significant improvement with regard to existing pressure on prison accommodation. In these circumstances, the Government must oppose this Bill.

However, in doing so, I assure the House that we are addressing the type of issues dealt with by the Bill with a view to devising practicable proposals, especially in relation to attachment of earnings. We are doing so in the context of the establishment of the new courts service and against a background of an unprecedented investment of £11 million in information technology systems for the courts.

There has been some criticism of the unprecedented scale of the prison building programme which the Government has undertaken. I believe it to be fundamentally misplaced. If there has been one factor more than any other over the past decade or more which has most hampered the effective operation of our criminal justice system, it has been the operation of the revolving door in our prison system. It has meant that people who are apprehended by the gardaí and convicted and sentenced by the courts have been released early, not because it has been judged to be in the best interests of society, but because there has not been sufficient space to hold them. It is that lack of space which has prevented us so far from giving full effect to the provisions of the Bail Act, 1997, which emanated from a decision by the people in a referendum, although I am glad to be able to tell the House that because of the prison building programme, I expect to be able to do so later this year.

There appears to be an assumption in some quarters that to favour more prison building automatically implies a lack of support for alternatives to custody, or, indeed, vice versa. That, of course, is a far cry from reality. An effective criminal justice system needs an appropriate balance between custodial and non-custodial alternatives. In this context it must be recognised that unless imprisonment is available as the ultimate sanction, this can undermine the effective operation of non-custodial alternatives. For example, if there is insufficient prison space available to ensure that a person in breach of a community service order will serve the custodial sentence which arises in those circumstances, it has implications for the successful operation of the community service scheme.

The prison building programme which the Government is undertaking should enable us to do two things: first, we should be able for once and for all to stop the prison door revolving and, second, it should enable us to ensure that the standard of custodial accommodation which we provide for all prisoners is appropriate. This is very important because I have consistently stated that one of my principal aims as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is to end the entire revolving door syndrome once and for all.

While I accept that alternatives to custody have an important and, I hope, increasing role to play in our criminal justice system, we are fooling ourselves by pretending we can ensure the efficient operation of the criminal justice system without making the sort of investment we are making in the building programme. This Bill is a good case in point. It is presented as a significant measure in terms of easing existing pressure on prison accommodation. However, leaving aside my other reservations about the Bill, it will do nothing of the sort. Statistics on the number of people in custody for non-payment of fines and debts tend to be used in a way which distorts reality when the implications for prison accommodation are being considered. Committals in relation to non-payment of fines and debts in 1996 amounted to approximately 18 per cent of all committals to custody, but at any given time the number of prison places being occupied by people in this category amounts generally to between 1 and 1.5 per cent of the prison population.

The explanation for this is straightforward, the time spent by debt or fine defaulters in custody is generally short. This arises because, generally, the sentences in these cases are relatively short. In addition, some defaulters make payment either on committal or shortly afterwards. Even if this Bill had the effect that no fine or debt defaulter took up prison places in future – it would be most unlikely to have that effect – the result would be the availability of perhaps an extra 30 extra prison places, an average of less than three places in each of our custodial institutions. That is also misleading in the sense that many defaulters are held in open prisons and there is no guarantee that there would be other prisoners in closed institutions suitable for transfer to open centres to take up these places should they become available.

While I recognise that although fine and debt defaulters represent only a tiny fraction of our prison population at any given time, the number of committals place a heavy administrative burden on our committal prisons. Nevertheless, to simply displace that burden to the court service and the gardaí, as the Bill appears to do, would not be the solution. While I accept the general proposition that imprisonment should be a sanction of last resort and that we need to address the issues raised by this Bill, it will be clear that to put this measure forward as having substantial positive implications in terms of prison accommodation is unsustainable.

I will return shortly to substantial problems with the detail of what the Bill proposes but in the context I have outlined it might be helpful to inform the House in some detail of what in practice we are doing to ensure that our prison accommodation is adequate. By the end of this year over 1,200 extra prison places will have been provided by this Government. The planning and consultation process is under way regarding the other 800 places promised during the lifetime of the Government. Fine Gael opposes much of this prison building programme. It was unforgivable, but might be understandable, that in Government the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, postponed or cancelled the prison at Castlerea, but it is incomprehensible that the Opposition now opposes the building of much needed prison spaces – maybe it wants to make this Government the first in the history of the State to bring down the Opposition.

The replacement D Block at Limerick Prison was opened by me in December 1997 and is fully operational. The new prison at Castlerea was completed and opened by me in May 1998. The prison was brought into use immediately and now houses more than 150 prisoners.

The construction work at the new remand prison at Cloverhill with 400 places and the new female prison at Mountjoy with 80 places is almost complete and will be handed over by the builders in the first quarter of this year. Following fit out and detailed security systems being put in place, they will become operational during 1999.

In addition, following Government approval and an EU wide tender competition, I signed the contract for the new Midlands Prison with 400 places in May 1998. The construction work on this project is well under way and is due to be completed in August 1999. It is said to be the fastest building project of its size. The Government also approved an extension to the Midlands Pri son of a further 115 places and it is expected that building work will be completed by the end of this year.

Alongside the prisons building programme, there is a comprehensive programme of works being carried out in the existing prisons, particularly in Portlaoise and Limerick. The main priority is the improvement of prisoner, staff and administration facilities and the extension of in-cell sanitation to all closed prisons. I have overseen the commencement of a comprehensive and wide-ranging consultation process in relation to the refurbishment of Mountjoy Prison, which included consultations with prison governors, prison staff, the medical director and other medical staff and the co-ordinators of work training and education. This process will be completed in early 1999 with a view to completing a building brief and tender process by mid 1999.

This programme evidences the Government's determination that our criminal justice system should have available to it the resources necessary to meet the demands placed on it. I emphasise that this approach is fully consistent with developing appropriate alternatives to custody to the greatest extent possible. As I mentioned earlier, it is not a question of doing one or the other. In this context, I remind the House that I established an expert group on the probation and welfare service. It has already issued one report and I look forward to receiving its final report in early May.

The Bill would place further burdens on the operation of the probation and welfare service in at least two ways. The first arises under section 15 which would allow community service rather than imprisonment to be imposed in the case of fine or debt default. While I do not have a closed mind on the subject, this issue is far from straightforward. In particular, I understand that when the Community Service Act was introduced it was decided as a matter of policy, so it would be treated as a genuine alternative to custody, that it could only be imposed where otherwise a custodial sentence, rather than a fine or any other non-custodial sanction, would have been imposed.

There is a further difficulty in using community service in the cases of debt as distinct from non-payment of fines. That arises because the primary purpose of imprisonment in debt cases is to attempt to ensure that the money owed is paid over to the creditor and there must be some doubt that the use of community service is appropriate in that context. It may be useful to mention in this context that where a person is committed to prison because of failure to pay a debt, that person is committed for failure, through wilful default or culpable neglect, to obey an order of the court. The court would have to go through an extensive procedure before making an instalment order and finally a committal order sending the person to prison. This is a mechanism for enforcing the court's instalment order.

The second burden the Bill would place on the probation and welfare service arises under section 18 where a person given time to pay a fine can be placed under the supervision of a probation and welfare officer for the purpose of assisting and advising that person in regard to payment of the fine. I wonder if this would represent making the greatest use of the resources of the probation and welfare service. Not least there is the cost factor involved, particularly where the amount of the fine may be small.

I am aware that section 18 mirrors a provision in UK legislation but I am also aware that Home Office research indicates it is rarely used. It would be wrong to argue that what we are putting in the balance is invariably the cost of using a probation and welfare officer's time in this way compared to the cost of imprisoning a person for non-payment. If the Bill was enacted, there is no guarantee that it would be confined in practice to people who would otherwise have been imprisoned if this provision did not exist.

This, in many ways, is the central difficulty with many of the Bill's provisions. Fines amounting to approximately £8 million are paid each year. People pay fines at present on the understanding that failure to do so would lead to imprisonment. However, with the provisions in the Bill in relation to defaulters, not least Part II dealing with attachment of earnings, it may be the case that people who are prepared to pay fines under present arrangements would be happy to take their chances instead with the alternatives in relation to non-payment which the Bill provides. Were this to happen, the current fine system could be grievously undermined.

These alternatives would involve further court hearings and a substantial amount of administrative work for both court staff and the gardaí which could prove costly and divert people from more important work. Under the Bill, where someone fails to pay a fine of £50, there could be a further court hearing in relation to making an attachment order and further administrative work in making the necessary arrangements for enforcing the attachment order. The costs involved could be enormous in relation to the amount of the fine involved. It would not be right to compare those costs with the alternative cost of imprisonment because in light of the terms of the Bill, many people might default in payment who otherwise would not have done so. There is no controlling mechanism in the Bill as to when the provisions come into play other than that someone has been in default of payment of a fine or debt.

The Government legislative programme contains a commitment in relation to an attachment of earnings Bill. To this end, a considerable amount of work has been carried out in my Department, including research in relation to committals for non-payment of fines and debts and an examination of the law in some other jurisdictions. Because of the complexity of the issues involved, work is not yet at the stage where we are able to finalise proposals which would get around the type of difficulties which arise and which are evident from the Bill. Attachment of earnings will have a role to play if carefully focused where, for example, someone wilfully refuses to pay a fine he or she is well able to pay. However, we need to examine further how we could best achieve that in a way that does not undermine the operation of the fines system generally.

Section 14 provides for attachment orders on amounts payable as income support. While I would not completely rule out this option, I am sure all Members of the House will recognise it is an issue which must be approached with great caution. In this context, it must be borne in mind that social welfare payments made to an individual often include elements in relation to dependants and it is hardly sustainable that that part of the payment should be subject to an attachment order.

Section 17 provides for the payment of fines by instalment. There is no provision for payment of fines by instalment at present and the courts administration is not geared to provide such a service. I understand that traditionally the view was taken that the administrative costs of providing for payment by instalment would be prohibitively high. However, I accept that there must be some doubt that an attachment of earnings scheme would be appropriate in the absence of a scheme whereby fines could be paid by instalment.

Non-payment of debt gives rise to different considerations because of the existence already of instalment orders in such cases, although an option to attach earnings where there is a failure to comply with instalment orders is an issue which is being addressed in the examination under way in my Department at present. I will return to the question of payment of fines by instalment later.

While the Government is not in a position to support the Bill for the reasons I have outlined, I assure the House that the matter will not rest there. All the evidence shows that the Government is determined to have as efficient a court system as possible and it is against that background that the issues to which the Bill gives rise are being addressed. In that context, I want to mention two developments.

The House will be aware that last year we enacted the Courts Service Act. There had been a recognition for some time that, no matter how well we had been served by our courts in the past, the administrative infrastructure was in need of extensive restructuring so that it would be well placed to cope with the ever changing demands being made upon it which in turn reflected changes in society generally. During the passage of this legislation there was widespread agreement in the House that the establishment of the courts service would lead to the changes that are necessary to bring about a forward looking courts service which will be as responsive as possible to the needs of its customers as we head into the new millennium.

Deputies will be aware that subsequently a Courts Service Transition Board was appointed which in turn appointed Mr. P.J. FitzPatrick, the former chief executive officer of the Eastern Health Board, as the chief executive officer designate of the courts service. I am sure all Members of the House will join with me in wishing Mr. FitzPatrick well in his new appointment. Arrangements are being made to make the full transition to an independent court service as quickly as possible. I mention this development not just as evidence of the commitment of this Government to as efficient a court service as possible, but also to highlight that, in advancing our proposals on matters affecting court administration, we will consult fully with the new service.

The second significant development worth mentioning in the context of this Bill is that towards the end of last year, together with the Chief Justice, Mr. Liam Hamilton, and Mrs. Justice Denham, I launched a major information systems development programme at a cost of £11 million over the next three years for the new courts service. There is a broad and specific context in which this development is relevant to the issues we are discussing this evening. The broad issue stems from the fact, which I believe has been recognised on all sides of the House for many years, that the process of decision making in the criminal justice system has been hampered by the lack of adequate information systems to underpin decision making. That deficit in relation to the courts will be fully addressed by this proposed development. The specific issue arises because one of the priority areas for examination in this project is the area of fines. I hope it will prove possible in that context to address in particular the issue of the payment of fines by instalment as proposed in the Bill before us.

It may be helpful to the House to elaborate somewhat on the information systems development programme for the courts which we are undertaking. The new systems will address many of the information gaps in courts on an operational and management level. The systems should make a major contribution to the success of the new courts service and will benefit all those who work in, or do business with, the courts. In support of these developments, a modern communications infrastructure in every court office in the State is being designed and built. Over the next year or so, each office will have a modern cabling infrastructure installed and within the three year timescale all offices will be linked through the central data repository in the courts service headquarters in Dublin.

The Working Group on the Courts Commission, in its very first report, recognised the lack of innovation in the use of information technology in the Irish courts system. The courts are ideally placed to take advantage of the prevailing and emerging technologies. As part of the positive response to the working group's reports, planning and procurement began leading to the major development programme I have mentioned.

The consortium appointed to lead this programme will work with the courts service to provide a range of information system development skills together with project management, business process improvement and workflow management expertise across a total of 11 new applications which have been identified as essential for the courts service.

Part of the development will be an examination of court administration processes and also of the links between the courts and other agencies in the criminal justice system. Priority areas for examination include processing of summonses, charge sheets, case outcomes, bail applications, warrants, prisoner movements and, as I mentioned earlier, fines. All involve co-ordination of systems developments across a number of agencies. Working groups have been making recommendations for improvements in each of these areas.

The general point I want to make about these developments in the context of the Bill before the House is that I am confident the major development programme in the courts, which is mirrored by similar developments in relation to the gardaí and the prison service, should over time enable us to introduce innovative responses to particular issues which arise in the criminal justice system which hitherto were impracticable because the infrastructure did not exist to support them.

I hope it will be clear from what I have said that, while we have grave doubts about the practicality of much of what is proposed in the Bill, we recognise that it gives rise to issues which need to be addressed. These issues are being addressed by the Government, particularly in the context of the establishment of the new courts service and against the background of the unprecedented investment in technology to underpin the operation of the courts. In devising its own proposals for legislation in this area the Government will have full regard to what is contained in Deputy Higgins's Bill, and the views of Deputies which emerge during the course of this evening's debate.

There were a number of issues which Deputy Higgins, in the course of his address, neglected to mention. I introduced the legislation establishing the new courts service and I have appointed a chairman of the new interim prisons authority. I have had 18 Bills enacted since my appointment as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and many more are before the House or will be ready shortly. There was one glaring omission from Deputy Higgins's contribution. He made no mention, and never does in his various declarations on the whole issue of imprisonment, that the level of serious crime in this country has decreased in an unprecedented way.

(Mayo): The figures for rape are up by 30 per cent.

I suspect that the only reason he did not mention this is that the implication is quite clear.

(Mayo): Juvenile crime figures are up by 15 per cent.

The Government's policies are working, not least in the provision of additional prison accommodation, which Deputy Higgins and Fine Gael oppose. Obviously nothing can convince Deputy Higgins or his party of the efficacy of the policies being pursued. If the statistics gathered in precisely the same manner as they were prior to my appointment as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will not convince the Deputy and his party of the appropriateness of the policies being pursued, nothing will.

I have never been of the view that imprisonment of itself is the panacea to the crime problem but I am firmly of the view that the point has been passed whereby we can tolerate the release of people into society out of our prisons on the sole criterion that there is an insufficiency of space for them. That is something which is unsustainable and which could only serve to undermine the entire criminal justice system, not least because it saps the morale of the gardaí, infuriates the public, fuels crime and, unquestionably, brings the entire system into disrepute.

That is what the Bill addresses.

It is clear at this point that we will end the revolving door syndrome and we will end this form of early release which, unquestionably, has caused so much difficulty for so many years. In doing so, I am convinced we will succeed in bringing crime figures down even further.

I accept there are other methods which must be applied, and Deputy Higgins mentioned some of those. It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge and accept that we must encourage and develop other ways also but, unfortunately, there are people for whom the ultimate sanction of imprisonment is not just desirable but an imperative. It has been established in every other society, and nobody will accept this could be a coincidence, that the reduction in the number of early releases from Mountjoy Prison coincided with a reduction in crime.

I do not mean to denigrate Deputy Higgins's Bill. I acknowledge there are some good ideas in it which are worth considering. I look forward to honouring the Government's commitment to bring forward legislation to deal with attachment of earnings but that legislation will be practicable, practical and effective and will take account of the better points in Deputy Higgins's Bill.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Naughten, Ahearn, Flanagan and Perry.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Like the Minister, I recognise the sadness of the occasion, following the death of Deputy Upton. I knew him very well and we were elected to the Seanad on the same day. We enjoyed many a joke and chuckled about many of the events that took place there. The late Deputy Upton was vociferous on justice issues when he was his party's spokesman on Justice in this House. He will be deeply missed by all of us who knew him well and by his family.

I welcome the Enforcement of Court Orders Bill, 1998, and I congratulate Deputy Jim Higgins for his initiative in bringing it before the House. This issue has been discussed since the early 1990s when the Law Reform Commission completed a report on it. The commission was quite clear in its approach that the issue should be taken on board and dealt with by the Minister at the time. It is extremely disappointing that the current Minister has displayed a negative response to Deputy Higgins's initiative. It is short sighted and I urge the Minister to reconsider the situation.

At present, the State's approach is to put in prison those who default in paying fines or civil debts. Surely, in the context of our present prison regime, it is nonsensical that such people should take up spaces in our prisons. We put people in prison for failure to pay fines while those who have committed really serious crimes are released early due to lack of space. We put civil debtors in prison while the State cannot put fully into practise the people's decision that those who are likely to commit serious crime while on bail be remanded in custody. This cannot be enforced because of the prison regime, yet we are prepared to imprison those who fail to pay fines or civil debts.

It costs £47,000 per year to keep a prisoner behind bars. Some 20 per cent of people are committed to prison for non-payment of fines or debts. We must seek alternatives to this system. Deputy Higgins's Bill is a sensible and logical way of dealing with the problem while freeing up prison spaces for those who commit serious crime and ensuring they serve their full sentences. It is sensible to empower a court to make an attachment of earnings order where it is satisfied that the fine defaulter or civil debtor is receiving a wage or salary. It is also sensible that an attachment order should be made to the social welfare payments of those who do not pay fines or who default on debts.

In many cases the present system is falling into disrepute. We hear on an ongoing basis from the Garda Síochána of cases where, at the expense of the State, defaulters are conveyed to prison, only for the gardaí to find them back on the streets the following morning because there were no prison places.

The Minister outlined the situation with regard to the decrease in crime. However, there is a level of despair regarding the many crimes that are not reported because people do not believe anything can be done about them. There is less and less reporting of crimes, including burglaries and break-ins.

I have serious concerns regarding the statistics the Minister quoted. Since many people are convinced that nothing can be done, many crimes go unreported and, therefore, do not appear in the Minister's statistics. Many people are afraid to open their doors after 7 or 8 o'clock at night. We all experience this, especially at election time. People living on their own are frightened when someone calls to the door. The situation is in sharp contrast to that in previous generations when the door was always off the latch and people came and went from house to house at their ease.

There should be a wider system of on the spot fines to tackle crime. The Minister introduced this measure recently, but it is an area that should be developed. There should also be provision for payment of fines by instalment, as well as confiscation of property and attendance at treatment centres. It is important that restitution should be made to victims of crime as part of a sentence, especially for minor crimes. People who commit serious crimes should serve their full sentence, with time off granted only for good behaviour. This would reduce the level of prison occupancy and ensure that those who commit serious offences know they will be subject to the full rigours of the law.

It is absurd for our prisons to be clogged up with minor offenders at a cost to the taxpayer of almost £800 per week for each prisoner. Prisons should be reserved for those who commit serious crimes against persons and property. The present system leads to overcrowding, early release and prisons being a breeding ground for crime. Some 2,000 committals are made annually for non-payment of fines and debts.

The Government should recognise that victims of crime are in many ways those who are most neglected by our criminal justice system. Every one of the criminal offences reported annually involves a person who suffered injury – often serious and sometimes fatal – or damage to their property. In most cases the system neither takes into account the trauma and loss suffered by them nor provides adequate mechanisms for compensation or restitution. Justice and common sense dictate a major change of approach in the way we deal with the victims of crime.

I take this opportunity to sympathise with the widow and family of the late Deputy Pat Upton.

I want to speak briefly about the attitude taken by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in concentrating on prisons rather than the probation service. In his speech the Minister talked about providing 1,200 extra prison places by the end of the year, yet he paid scant regard to the expansion of the probation and welfare service. By the Minister's own calculations, some 10,950 prison days per annum are taken up by minor offenders. It costs £46,000 per year to keep someone in prison. It is crucially important that we develop our probation service by putting resources into it. For example, the probation service at Castlerea prison is hugely under-resourced. Even with the increase of prisoners in Castlerea, there still has not been a corresponding increase in the probation service.

People who commit minor crimes, including failure to pay small fines, should be required to do community service such as cleaning up graveyards. This issue, which I brought to the attention of the Minister quite recently, can help local community organisations while at the same time be of benefit to the whole justice system. One example of that concerns an adolescent who broke a bottle in a street. He was ordered by the court to pick up rubbish in his own estate. That young man will not break another bottle on the street, and imprisoning him would not have solved the problem.

It is crucially important that when we have an opportunity to do so, funding should be put into the probation and welfare service. Minor offenders should be required to clean up graveyards and other small tasks that at present are being done under community employment schemes. The Government's intention is to reduce the number of community employment schemes, which will leave a void for local organisations. It could be filled by those on probation. Minor offenders are often sent to prison where they pick up further bad habits. If they were not sent to prison, according to the Minister's conservative calculation, an additional 10,000 or 11,000 prison spaces would be freed up. If the probation service was extended, more prison places would be freed up without the need to extend our prisons.

I join previous speakers in marking the memory of the late Deputy Upton. Had he been here, undoubtedly he would have made an interesting and enthusiastic contribution. I join previous speakers in offering my sympathy to his family on their sad and tragic loss.

Deputy Higgins introduced his Bill by saying that while it was published many months ago he did not press it until now because he wished to allow the Minister an opportunity to introduce his legislation. Alas that did not happen. That is further evidence of the folly of the Taoiseach and the Government in amalgamating the Department of Justice and the former Department of Equality and Law Reform. The latter Department reached many milestones in terms of the enactment of reforms in the civil legislative code under a fine Minister, Mervyn Taylor. I hope at some future date, perhaps with an early change of Government, the former Department of Equality and Law Reform will be constituted. The Department under the auspices of the Minister is not a reforming one. It is not headed by a Minister who is on top of his brief. Legislation on the A list last term is now on the B list and some Bills do not appear on the list. The matter of law reform is little short of a shambles.

It is worth noting that in spite of our difficulties we are fortunate to live in a country that is among the safer countries in the world in which to reside. Leaving aside terrorism related activities, of which there have been many during the past 30 years, if one travels across the Border to Northern Ireland the crime rate there is some 30 per cent higher than that here.

It is important that we give greater credence and recognition to different categories of crime in the context of custodial prison sentences. It is important to run through the profile of the many burglaries and attacks on persons in the form of theft, armed robberies, muggings, stabbings and malicious damage which occur on a nightly basis. There is a recurring theme. The perpetrators of these acts are predominantly young, male, come from disadvantaged areas, have low educational attainment and, more often than not, are engaged in activities closely related to drugs. The issues of poverty and marginalisation, education retardation, socio-economic deprivation are features of the bulk of criminal activity. Our criminal justice system cannot deal with the problem.

The inadequacies of our prison system were outlined by Deputy Higgins. This Bill is designed to respond to those inadequacies and it is extraordinary that the Minister is not prepared to accept it as a reforming measure. Our criminal justice system cannot deal with the problem because the time honoured solutions are not working as our prisons creak at the seams. We need a multi-agency approach of a type recommended in Deputy Higgins's Bill and elaborated on by Deputy Naughten. The Minister said we need to encourage and look at new ways to deal with the problem. Yet the new ways put forward by Deputy Higgins are not the Minister's ways.

This problem could be dealt with by way of a restorative justice model. I refer specifically to the New Zealand model. I ask the Minister to introduce that model here with particular reference to combating youth crime. Most of us would agree prison should always remain a place of last resort. However, prisoner statistics tell a different tale. Most offenders given prison sentences by the courts are those who commit non-violent offences against property or offences one could describe as less serious, such as offences under the road traffic code, bad debts referred to by Deputy Higgins and drink related offences.

The annual cost of £46,000 for keeping a prisoner is excessive and unnecessary. Chronic overcrowding of our prisons leads to the infamous revolving door syndrome; resulting in a crisis in our prison system. The Minister said he is tackling the problem, but there is not any great evidence of that. He said people may lose confidence in our prison regime, but I would go further and say they have lost confidence in it. The most important function of our criminal justice system must be the prevention of reoffending and the concept of rehabilitation by encouraging the offender back to a normal and responsible life. For most offenders, prison means low self-esteem, a loss of home, family ties and social and economic support. A term in prison makes return to normal life extremely difficult for many people. It allows them to drift into a sad cycle of repeated criminal behaviour. They drift from crime to prison and from prison to crime and are caught in a vicious circle of deprivation and hopelessness.

The New Zealand model breaks the cycle of criminal behaviour and it works well. If such a system was applied here, it would involve the health boards to a great degree and a beefed up welfare and probation service, which the Minister refuses to fund. The cost involved would not be the major issue the Minister maintains it would be because we would have to take account of the savings on our astronomical prisons bill.

A restorative justice system involves the community, the victim of the offence and State agencies involved in providing help and assistance for the offender. Community service and involvement in local development issues will help offenders realise their place in society and understand the offences and the damage they inflicted on the community by their anti-social behaviour. Repeated rhetoric from the "lock them up and throw away the key brigade" does nothing to tackle crime or its causes and does not have a place in our criminal justice system. As the National Crime Forum has praised the New Zealand model, I hope the Minister will go further and introduce it, if not in its entirety at least as a pilot scheme, particularly in regard to dealing with youth crime. I urge the Minister to do that without delay.

Some of the points raised by Deputy Higgins bear repetition because of their importance. He listed the inadequacies of our prison system. In many cases remand prisoners, who have not been found guilty of any offence, spend more time than convicted criminals in prison. It is extraordinary that one-third of our prisoners are under 21. Seventy-six per cent were committed to prison for non-violent offences. I want the Minister to tell us what provision he is introducing to allow prison officers to become involved in the treatment, rehabilitation, counselling and other elements which might constitute part of a plan to manage prisoners in an orderly and acceptable way. Deputy Higgins spoke about the report of the prison chaplains, which stated that rape and sexual assault are a reality in Irish prisons and that rape is almost certainly under-reported. Of course it is, because the Minister and his Department do not want to acknowledge it exists.

In the context of the Minister's prison building mantra on increased spaces which we hear on a daily basis – I welcome the bulk of them – bricks and mortar accompanied only by locks and keys will not solve the problem in our criminal justice system. The Minister must look far beyond the provision of thousands of extra prison spaces; I welcome those he is creating in my constituency. However, the Minister should not use that as the solution to the problem in our criminal justice system.

I join my colleagues in extending my sympathy to the family of the late Deputy Upton. He is a great loss to this House and it is sad that a great man was taken at such a young age.

I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Higgins, on bringing forward this important Bill. I wish to raise the issue of how small debts orders are enforced in the District Court. An instalment order is obtained against the debtor and then served. If the debtor defaults on the instalment order, an application to commit the person to prison is then obtained. When the District Court judge makes an order committing the person to prison, a warrant is issued and sent to the Garda who must enforce it by arresting the person and conveying him or her to the nearest prison.

The arrest of a person and his or her detention in prison incurs considerable expense to the State which is never recovered. The present system allows debtors to be imprisoned with hardened criminals, which is unacceptable. The committal of a debtor to prison is of little benefit to the creditor as the debt remains outstanding; many people forget this. It results in a valuable prison space being used by somebody who is not really a criminal and for whom prison was not designed.

A far more appropriate way of enforcing judgments against those of inadequate means would be to have work orders made by the courts, under which the debtor could work for the creditor to pay off his or her debt. Alternatively, if the debtor is in receipt of social welfare, the court could make an attachment order whereby a certain amount could be deducted each week and paid to the creditor. It is important to bear in mind that the reduction in social welfare benefits might make a person worse off and leave him or her with no option but to apply to the health board for supplementary benefit, which is clearly undesirable. Accordingly, each case would have to be judged on its own merits as regards attachment orders.

Scope must also be given to the courts to make orders whereby the debtor could be employed on community work schemes. The State would then pay the creditor for any work done. Large debts are enforced by obtaining orders for sale, as some form of security is given to the creditor by the debtor. The present system for enforcement of these debts works fairly well but huge improvements can be made.

I also wish to raise the issue of credit ratings. Loans are widely available and some people may have difficulty in repaying them. A constituent came to my office some weeks ago who told me he and his wife are working but some years ago they had difficulty in repaying a debt and a judgment was made against them. Their credit rating was affected to the extent that they were unable to borrow any money. In certain cases there should be a time limit on the retention of information on bad debts. A person can fail to repay a small amount of money at a young age but his or her credit rating is affected for years. This should be looked at, as a consumer should be given a second chance.

This is a well-thought out Bill and proposes many alternatives which would reduce the amount of Garda time spent arresting people. Last week, I received a phone call from a person whose husband was fined. He had a serious medical condition and was unable to pay the fine. She was frightened her husband would be arrested. These proposed alternatives should be looked at. Something must be done. White collar crime is a huge problem. People are stealing huge amounts and those with little money are suffering.

The proposal for new court services provides a good opportunity for the Minister to introduce new ways to process summonses. People who are unable to borrow money but are prepared to pay fines over a reasonable period should be allowed to pay in instalments. Some of the money invested in building prisons could be diverted to alternatives to encourage people to work in the community as a form of payment. While this would be hard to administer, as Deputy Naughten said, a great deal of work can be done under community service.

Security costs are huge for businesses trying to prevent crime. There are definitely places in prison for criminals who leave cities and come to country towns. I endorse the Minister's efforts to ensure their apprehension and detention. However, those who are unable to pay fines but are willing to find an alternative should be given a chance, without involving the utilisation of Garda and judicial resources. There is a way around that. Deputy Higgins has proposed innovative alternatives and the Minister should take them on board.

Given the new technology, priority should be given to the processing of summonses. Eleven million pounds is being spent throughout the country under the new Courts Orders Act. There should be uniformity of fines as one District Court judge can be at variance with another, which is disquieting for people. District Court judges should be familiar with fines for similar offences.

I appeal to the Minister to look at the information retained by the credit bureau on people who have had summonses issued against them. After a number of years, their files should be updated to allow them obtain credit again. It is important that their lives should not be curtailed because they have no credit facilities. I congratulate Deputy Higgins on his innovative Bill. I appeal to the Minister to take it on board as it is the way forward.

I propose to share my time with Deputies Foley, Collins, Eoin Ryan, Hanafin and Ardagh.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I concur with my colleagues on the sad and untimely death of Dr. Pat Upton. I offer my sympathy to the Labour Party and in particular to his wife and family and circle of friends.

I congratulate Deputy Jim Higgins on his Private Members' Enforcement of Court Orders Bill, 1998, and on providing us with an opportunity to discuss some very important issues which relate to the non-payments of fines or debts. I am aware of the four expert reports dating back to 1984 and the recommendation on fine defaulters and civil debts. I question why no real progress has been made by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on those recommendations which I understand would not be far removed from the principles contained in the Private Members' Bill before the House.

I acknowledge the enormous effort of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, since he took over responsibility from his predecessor, Deputy Owen. I congratulate Deputy O'Donoghue on the prison building programme. Such programme had an abrupt execution in the previous rainbow Coalition when the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, was missing from the Cabinet table. We then had the revolving door prison syndrome. I hold a very strong view that when punishment for offence is necessary the punishment should fit the crime. It was totally unacceptable that the then Government's response to a person convicted of a crime was the oiling of the revolving door. Crime figures are dropping, but the incidence of serious and vicious crime is escalating. To this end, I welcome the current prison building programme which should ensure appropriate accommodation is provided to all prisoners and stop the revolving door syndrome.

By the end of this year more than 1,200 extra prison places will have been provided by this Fianna Fáil-led Government. I understand that, in the course of the next few years, we will increase our prison places from 2,200 to in excess of 4,400 which I welcome. I listened to the contributions from speakers on the Opposition benches on the cost of prison places and that we should not build prisons and incarcerate the prisoners. I do not believe the Minister intends to do what the Opposition is suggesting, but I hope Members will concur with me that we send out a clear message to the perpetrators of serious and vicious crime that they will go to prison and stay there until they pay their debt to society, that an example will be made of those who are convicted by the courts. I would like to think everybody agrees with that, contrary to what I have heard so far tonight.

I support and encourage the use of alternatives to custody, especially fines, probation, compensation orders and community service in appropriate cases. I am disappointed to note the Bill before us could undermine the existing system for the payment of fines, prove difficult to administer and be a huge administrative burden for the courts, the Garda Síochána and the Probation Service. In this context, I draw the Minister's attention to the first report of the expert group under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Brian McCarthy and the urgent need to put in place a satisfactory structure in each area and the staffing needs of the probation and welfare service. Given the glaring gaps in the staffing requirements to which he refers in the first report there is need for a rapid response to the staffing needs which we should put in place.

Deputy Flanagan praised the New Zealand model. I am not sure if the Opposition spokesperson, Deputy Jim Higgins, is aware – Deputy Flanagan is not – that juvenile crime is going through the roof in New Zealand. The facts speak for themselves. I am sure if Deputy Flanagan was aware of those facts he would not be promoting the New Zealand model.

We agree that a person who fails to pay a fine or civil debt should not be put through the expensive process of being put behind bars. The present system is crazy. The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, has put on record that we will see the introduction of an appropriate mechanism such as contained in the Bill which is workable. I acknowledge the determination of the Government to have an efficient, practical and effective court system. I have every confidence in the court services meeting the challenges under the chief executive, Mr. P.J. Fitzpatrick, who must be recognised as one of the best administrators. I welcome and look forward to the radical improvement in the court services.

As previous speakers have said, a shadow is cast over this debate because of the untimely death of Dr. Pat Upton. He and I were elected to the Seanad on the same day in 1989 and developed a great friendship. I express my deepest sympathy to his wife and family and to his party.

The Bill before us proposes that a court or an application to it may make an attachment of earnings order in the case of a person who has defaulted on a fine. This would require the person's employer to deduct the amount specified by the court. In addition, it contains a provision for the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs to make deductions from persons entitled to income support. Further provisions in the Bill allow for the fines to be paid by instalment and community service to be substituted where a person has defaulted on a fine and the appointment by the court of a probation and welfare officer to supervise the person for the purpose of assisting and advising him or her in regard to payment of the fine. The Minister is concerned that the proposals as they stand could have adverse implications for the payment of fines in that people who pay fines at present do so on the understanding that their failure to do so would lead to imprisonment and they may now be prepared to take their chance with the alternatives in the case of non-payment. These alternatives would involve further court hearings and a considerable amount of administrative work, and this could prove very costly even taking into account an improvement in the level of fines paid. In effect, the Bill contains no controlling criteria other than non-payment where these mechanisms might come into play and in the absence of such criteria very substantial public expenditure could be incurred in pursuing very small amounts of money.

The provisions on attachment in the case of income support raises a very complex issue which will require further consideration. There is no provision for payment of fines by instalment at present and the courts are not geared to provide such a service. Nevertheless, it should be examined in conjunction with the new courts service and, in particular, against the background of the major investment of £11 million in new IT which has been authorised for the courts. The Minister has serious doubts that an attachment of earnings scheme would be appropriate in the absence of people being able to make payments by instalment. I understand the Minister believes that attachment to earnings would have a role to play if carefully focused, but he is anxious to avoid a situation whereby the present system of fine collection would be undermined by the introduction of the general provision included in the Private Members' Bill. The Minister has stated that his Department, in consultation with the new court services, will continue to work on proposals in this regard with a view to bringing forward a draft scheme as soon as possible. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider the petition system which I believe dealt in a compassionate way with many deserving cases.

There has been public comment to the effect that the Bill has been brought forward in the context of easing pressure on prison accommodation. While the higher number of committals to prison impose a burden on the prison service, only approximately 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent of prisoners are in prison for non-payment of fines. A number of them are held in the open centres where the spaces might otherwise not be filled due to a reluctance on the part of many prisoners to be transferred to open centres.

In the circumstances, claims that proposals in the Bill would lead to an improvement in the pressure on existing prison accommodation are without foundation. The Government deserves congratulations on its prison building programme. This will stop the revolving door problem, allow the Bail Act to be implemented and permit the essential refurbishment of certain prisons.

The Government has been willing to put essential funding into the criminal justice system which is why crime rates are falling and, I hope, will continue to fall. The Minister opposes the Bill on the basis that it would undermine the operation of the present fines system and it could prove expensive to operate.

I congratulate Deputy Higgins on his Bill. The proposals, while well intentioned, could undermine the present fines system which is the most widely used alternative to custody. I welcome the Minister's commitment to address the issues raised in the Bill. Since his appointment, he has had 19 Bills enacted which is a measure of the Government's commitment to law reform.

I express my sympathy to the wife and family of the late Deputy Upton. In recent months I made Deputy Upton's acquaintance and gained his friendship. We had something in common because he was a native of west Clare and he had many relatives in Ballylanders, which is in my constituency. I also offer my sympathy to the Labour Party.

I commend Deputy Higgins on preparing the Enforcement of Court Orders Bill, 1998. A great deal of preparatory work was put into bringing the Bill before the House. However, it is unacceptable. It is ill conceived. I will outline my argument in the limited time available.

The Bill gives power to the courts to attach the earnings and social welfare payments of debtors. It requires an employer to comply with the provisions of an attachment order and a debtor to provide a statement of earnings or particulars of payments due. This will also apply to all persons and employees working in the Civil Service and in State agencies. The Bill also includes provisions on the payment of fines by instalments.

It proposes that a court, on application to it, may make an attachment of earnings order in the case of a person who has defaulted on a fine or a debt. This would require the person's employer to deduct the amount specified by the court. In addition, the Bill contains provisions for the Minister for Social, Family and Community Affairs to make deductions from persons entitled to income support. Further provisions permit fines to be paid by instalment, community service to be substituted where a person has defaulted on a fine or debt and the appointment by the court of a probation and welfare officer to supervise the person for the purpose of assisting the debtor in the payment of the fine.

I would support the processes if I thought they would assist in enforcing judicial decisions in a uniform and comprehensive manner. However, on reflection, it appears the only purpose the Bill will serve is to add bureaucratic layers to the justice system and give the impression that imprisonment will never be an option to be considered in the case of fine defaulters. This is the kernel of the issue.

These proposals could have adverse implications for the payment of fines. People pay fines at present on the understanding that failure to do so could lead to imprisonment. They might now take the view that they would be prepared to take their chances with the alternatives provided for in the Bill for such non-payment. If this Bill is passed, it will dilute our national criminal code, which is based on the premise that punishment for offences is carried out to the letter of the law at all times.

The alternatives to the payment of fines which are proposed in the Bill would also mean extra bureaucratic layers of administration being added to our national courts service. That would be unwelcome. These alternatives in turn would involve extra court hearings and a considerable amount of administrative work which could prove costly even taking into account any improvement in the level of fines paid as a result of the proposals. The Bill contains no controlling criteria other than non-payment for when these mechanisms might come into play and, in the absence of such criteria, substantial public expenditure could be incurred in garnering a little money for the coffers of the State.

There is no provision to pay fines by instalment at present and our court system is simply not geared to accommodate the administration of such a practice.

I join my colleagues in expressing shock at the death of Deputy Pat Upton. Pat was an honourable man and a good parliamentarian. I was a Member of the Seanad with Pat before we became Members of the Dáil and I was absolutely shocked to hear of his death. No matter how bad a political situation was, Pat was always able to look at the amusing side. He could find a good angle to make everybody laugh at the situation or at themselves. That was a great part of his personality and I will always remember it. I offer my condolences to his family and to the Labour Party on their great loss.

I congratulate Deputy Higgins on introducing this Bill. It takes a great deal of time and effort to bring a Private Members' Bill before the House. The Minister, when he was in Opposition, brought forward a number of such measures and I was involved in the preparation of two of them so I am aware of the amount of work required. There is little back-up and one can make mistakes without realising it until the last moment. It makes one realise the amount of work done by civil servants and appreciate the back-up available to a Minister when drafting legislation.

The idea behind the Bill is good. However, it is probably a little premature. The Government has given a large commitment to the Minister's programme. There are huge problems in the prison system with the revolving door syndrome, a shortage of prison places and poor prison accommodation. The Minister has put a great deal of work into improving the prisons and has introduced 19 Bills since his appointment. The Oireachtas Committee which I chair does not wish to encourage him to produce too many more Bills because it is anxious to do other things. We find it difficult to find the time to keep up with the Minister and to examine other areas and ideas within our remit. We should be doing more of the latter but it is difficult given the number of Bills coming before us.

This Bill should be re-examined when most of the Minister's programme is in place. Some of its ideas are quite good. However, one of the problems I have with the legislation is the message that will be sent to people who pay fines at present if there is no chance of further penalties. Many people might decide to take a chance and see what would happen if they avoided paying the fines. There would be extra work and expense involved in collecting small amounts of money. I am not convinced this would achieve what the Deputy intends, it could be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The Minister stated that the new court service could examine some of the proposals and that he would consider some of the points raised in the Bill. I am delighted he will do that and introduce legislation if he feels it is necessary.

The number of people involved is interesting. Between 1 per cent and 1.5 per cent of the prison population is in prison for non-payment of fines. That is a small number of people and would not make much difference to the problem of prison overcrowding.

Some of the Bill's provisions should be examined and I congratulate the Deputy on introducing it.

I dteannta le daoine eile sa Teach seo, tá mé i mo bhall den Chomhchoiste um Dhlí agus Ceart, Comhionnanas agus Cearta na mBan, mar a bhí an tUasal Pat Upton. Ba mhaith liom comhbhrón a dhéanamh lena chlann agus le Pairtí an Lucht Oibre as ucht na cailliúna móire. Ba Ghaeilgeoir mhín lách é Pat Upton. Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam.

I am also a member of the subcommittee on crime and punishment which is ably chaired by Deputy Higgins. One of the topics we are examining is financial penalties and the use of prison. We have worked on this for a number of months and that work is ongoing. I had hoped we would have all-party agreement on a report with recommendations which would be sent to the Minister from which some good might come. For that reason this Bill is premature. While I commend Deputy Higgins on introducing the Bill, it might be naive to expect him to wait until we had finished our work on the committee. That is politics.

The use of prison is undesirable. Incarceration has huge social consequences. It is, however, an effective deterrent. In Ireland we use prison extensively. Our crime rate is one of the lowest in Europe and continues to fall. Countries such as Sweden and Denmark, which have the lowest use of prison, have the highest level of recorded crime. Much as we may not like it, prison is a deterrent.

I would not, however, want prison to be used as an automatic sanction for every crime. The figures for the use of prison for non-payment of debts, default of sureties, contempt of court and default of fines are exaggerated. Successive replies to Parliamentary Questions given by Ministers for Justice over the years show that at any one time only 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent of the prison population – approximately 30 people – is in prison because of non-payment of fines. The number committed and the number who serve time in prison is vastly different. If a judgment is made in a civil debt, the person can go before the District Court, file a statement of means and the judge can decide what he or she can afford. It is only then, if that person refuses to pay, that an order to be committed is made. That threat is obviously enough to make people pay. This Bill may challenge judicial determination. If we remove the sanction, people may not pay at all.

It would be inappropriate to deduct fines from social welfare. Social welfare is a minimum payment to people which takes into account many elements such as the number of dependants and so on. The Bill might be unconstitutional in its arbitrary nature – something which needs to be considered further.

Obviously, if a fine is imposed on a person, he or she should pay it. I am not convinced that removing fine defaulters from prison would solve the problems. That would be a long and slow process. When one considers the recommendations on targeting educational resources, the wise expenditure of youth funds, the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners and positive sentence management – measures which have been recommended in various reports over the years and which are currently being undertaken by the Government – it is obvious that a great deal needs to be done.

I look forward, as a member of the committee, to visiting the prisons to see at first hand the conditions so that I may be able to bring some useful comments to the work of the committee in formulating future policy.

I commend Deputy Higgins on the work involved in this Bill. On going through its provisions, the items which struck me were employment and poverty. This Bill seeks to make employers responsible for attachment of earnings orders, but the number of people who are self-employed or working on contract is growing and this should be addressed. People on social welfare are on the lowest possible income and to legislate in this way would need a great deal of care and attention.

Section 3(b) states that the Bill would apply to persons who have defaulted on the payment of a civil debt. People on the poverty line often buy videos and washing machines on hire purchase, putting them in a position where they have a debt which they cannot afford to repay. In such circumstances the attitude should be "contractor beware" rather than "buyer beware".

Section 4(2) states that the order should be directed at the employer. It is possible that employment would be jeopardised by the provisions of this Bill. Who would decide on the protected earnings rate? A court is not the right body to make such a decision. There should be some form of appeals system whereby a social worker, an employee of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and a welfare recipient, who lives on a low income, would decide in this matter.

An employer is given ten days to comply with an attachment of earnings order. Even the Revenue Commissioners give more than ten days, they normally give a minimum of 20 days and in excess of a month in some cases.

Compliance with an attachment of earnings order would involve a huge amount of bureaucracy for an employer which, in many cases, would be for minimal amounts. It would cause many employers to think twice before employing people. An employer could be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months if he or she does not comply with the Bill. An attachment of earnings order would be good reason for many employers to consider the continuation of a person's employment. The court may apply to the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs asking to deduct sums from any amounts payable to a defaulter. Here again people who do not have enough money to live on will have money taken from them. The idea of community service being used instead of fines must be looked at more extensively as we are talking about small amounts of money. The cost to both employers and the administrative services creates a significant problem.

This Bill deserves more thought and one can see the amount of work put into it. It is good to have it as a basis for further discussion and I look forward to participating in that discussion.

I thank the Minister and all Deputies who have contributed for their very kind comments about our late colleague, Dr. Pat Upton. I followed him into the justice brief. It was a tremendous shock to all of us to hear on Monday morning of his sudden and unexpected death. I thank the Minister, Deputy Higgins, and the House for facilitating my input in this debate. I, like all Members of our Parliamentary party, wanted to be present at the removal of Pat's remains, and I appreciate the great solidarity the party has experienced with Members on all sides and the respect shown to Pat. I know that has been of great help and sustenance to Anne and the family. Pat's eldest son was here yesterday for the tributes paid to him. It is important the family knows of the high regard in which Pat was held, not only by colleagues in the Labour Party, but by Members in all parties. I am very grateful for the remarks of individual Members in that regard tonight.

This is my first contribution on a criminal justice matter since my appointment to the justice brief. This is an important measure that deals with one of the core issues in this area – how to deal with offenders in a civilised country and how, as a compassionate people, we can learn from international experience and devise, in a relatively low crime environment, a penal system that is appropriate to our needs and which could be a model for other countries. There is no need for us to repeat the mistakes of others, and there is no need for a knee-jerk reaction to perceived dangers in an evolving society. We should be careful and measured in how we react. Quite often a knee-jerk reaction is popular in the short-term. The general public can demand that politicians take a particular course of action to buy temporary popularity. However, that may cause lasting damage to our society.

Deputy Higgins first published this Bill in May 1998, which was a considerable length of time ago. I understand the reason it remained on the Order Paper but was not pursued in Private Members' time was to give the Minister a chance to advance his own legislation in this area, which was promised since his time in Opposition. I welcome the Bill, and, like other speakers, I congratulate Deputy Higgins for the obvious work that went into it.

The Bill's main purpose is to enable the courts to deduct money from the income of fine defaulters and civil debtors rather than to send them to prison. This is a laudable objective and one this Legislature should pursue. In commenting on the detail of the Bill, I wish to be constructive and not critical of a very fine piece of work. The philosophy behind the Bill goes back to the report of the 1985 Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System, chaired by Dr. Ken Whitaker, which called for the implementation of alternatives to prison. The Labour Party has long called for implementation of that report, and Senator Joe Costello in particular has campaigned for prison reform. He introduced a Bill to do just that in the 1989 to 1992 Seanad. Unfortunately, Fianna Fáil would not let that Bill be debated. The Labour Party election manifesto in 1997 again called for the implementation of the Whitaker report, and in that manifesto we committed ourselves to the introduction of a sentencing Bill to deal with all aspects of sentencing with a view to increasing the number of alternatives to prison available to the courts. The issues dealt with in the Bill are an important component part of that general approach.

I hope to set the tone of my thinking in relation to my responsibilities in this area by looking at how our society regards prisons. My objective would be to reduce our dependence on the prison system. I do not jump up and down in delight at the notion that we are to provide 2,000 extra prison places. I do not rejoice in that as if it were a wonderful societal achievement for Ireland as we approach the new millennium. I wish we did not need such places, and I question whether we need that number.

When in a previous Government I met the Deputy Premier of the State of Victoria, who was also the Prisons Minister, on behalf of the Government when he came to Ireland. He was going back to Australia after visiting penal institutions in a number of American States. I would not characterise him as being soft. He was a hard nosed and strong minded Australian, but he said he had been horrified by some of the prisons he had seen in America. He described them as human warehouses and said that society had decided to deal with people it did not want on its streets by sending them off to a human warehouse where they could be locked away for the longest time possible. We have seen the introduction of regimes such as "three strikes and you're out", where three consecutive convictions, even those for relatively minor offences, can lead to a life sentence without remission. There is a fundamental flaw in a society that develops like that, and we should look very carefully at how that society is developing before we try to reflect or emulate it here.

The French based body, International Prison Watch, confirmed last year that it now costs £900 per week to keep an offender in an Irish prison. It does not make sense to me that a person can be put in prison for a civil debt or the non-payment of a fine which could be very much less than the weekly cost of keeping that person in prison. The Minister said the numbers are relatively small in saying that committals for the non-payment of fines and debts in 1996 amounted to about 18 per cent of all committals to custody. Eighteen per cent strikes me as a significant amount and if we could reduce our prison population by that amount we would have done a fairly good job in saving money for the taxpayer. He also said that at any given time the number of prison places being occupied by people in this category amounts to between 1 and 1.5 per cent of the prison population. That tells me that sending people to prison for only ten minutes is meaningless. We are all aware of people who have been sent to prison overnight. In our individual clinics we deal with clients who have road traffic offences and fines imposed on them and the Garda has to enforce the court order. Sometimes the Garda tell poor people they will be detained only overnight, that they will be back the next day, that the offence can be wiped out but that the court order has to be enforced.

That is no way to institute proper justice. Some of these fines would be meaningless to somebody with money in their pocket and a good income but they can have an extraordinary impact on those who have a meagre income or are dependent on social welfare. The notion of committing people to prison, simply because of their poverty, while others pay a fine which does not impact on their resources, underscores a clear injustice in society. We must keep under review the need for 2,000 additional places which will involve an additional annual expenditure of £90 million.

Crime in Ireland is low by international standards. The Minister said the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government policies are obviously successful because the crime rate is falling. Yet we need to build 2,000 extra places and are unwilling, even in a modest way, to address the issues by accepting the Bill in principle. I recognise the Bill has flaws but it can be amended on Committee Stage. People on the Opposition side do not have the drafting supports to produce perfect Bills. Dare I say, with all due respect, having sat on the Government side, Bills produced on the far side are not always flawless. If the principle is a good one it should be accepted. I have not heard many argue against it. Let us use the committees of the House to make a good Bill better.

I am worried about serious violence and about the increase in the number of murders. In terms of overall crime we do not need to build new prison places to hold our murderers. There are sufficient places for them if they can be tracked down. I pay tribute to the Garda which is fairly adept at doing just that. Most crime is larceny and most larceny is petty larceny involving property under a value of £200. If larceny is under a value of £200 and people are committed to prison at a cost of £900 per week, there is something askew in that logic.

Some interesting facts about the prison population should be put on the record. The 1996 criminal statistics for England and Wales states that the Irish penal system sent many people to prison. Our prison population per 100,000 crimes recorded is 2,120. Ireland is at the top of the list, with the exception of Northern Ireland. The peculiarities of Northern Ireland need not be explained here. France is next with 1,520 per 100,000 recorded crimes, followed by Austria, England and Wales, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway with 880, Denmark with 600 and Sweden with 510. Why has Ireland four times as many as Sweden or Denmark given that there are alternatives to prison? It does not indicate that prison is effective since Sweden, Denmark and Norway commit fewer people per crime to prison. Instead those countries seek alternatives. Contrary to the view put forward by Deputy Callely there is no direct correlation between sending people to jail and crime. The lower committal rates in the Scandinavian countries indicate there are alternatives to prison that can be as effective a deterrent for recidivism.

Given the extra prison places being provided at significant financial cost, we could close down some of those prisons where slopping out is still the practice. The Richardson case in 1980 said the Government had a duty to abolish slopping out. Some 20 years later that is still an objective. It is unthinkable that those Victorian conditions could still exist. There would be a consensus in this House if the women's prison in Limerick, which is in a dreadful condition, were to be closed. I have not yet had the opportunity to visit it but I hope to do so with the consent of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I do not know whether the Minister of State, who has a particular interest in these matters, would take it upon herself to look at that women's prison. There are only a small number of women prisoners there. The conditions are poor and the prison should not exist. There is a new women's prison in Mountjoy.

The whole issue of putting women into prison in Ireland is a relatively new phenomenon. We have no tradition of committing large numbers of women to prison. It is not something that characterised the Irish penal system, although it is growing. Many of the women in prison should not be there and only some would merit a custodial sentence. Many were involved in petty repeat shoplifting and similar type offences. Prison is not an appropriate place for those women.

Another issue which is of great importance is that of drugs in Mountjoy. We need to get to grips with this problem. It is clear many of those who are committed to Mountjoy have a drug habit. I know something about this problem given my responsibilities when Minister for Health in trying to tackle those on the outside. It appears drugs are available in Mountjoy Prison. I do not condemn the governor – a progressive and good man – or his staff. Unless we had a regime in place that would be unacceptable on grounds of human rights, it is impossible to screen for drugs in every circumstance. However, we have to do better. Above all we have to provide opportunities for people to be drug free. That is not being done.

Reference was made to a new prisons agency. When will the legislation for such an agency be published? Some time ago I asked the Taoiseach on the Order of Business when the interim board would be appointed, and I was told "shortly". We need to see progress on this issue.

I agree with a comment by a Fine Gael colleague about the pressures on the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which has by far the longest list of Bills pending on the Dáil Order Paper. It was a serious mistake to destroy the Department of Equality and Law Reform and subsume it into the Department of Justice – I say this in the presence of the Minister of State with responsibility for equality. It denied "equality" a voice at Cabinet. The Minister for Justice has enough responsibilities under the criminal justice system and with regard to Northern Ireland. Having served in two Governments with a Minister for Equality and Law Reform as an advocate for equality matters, I know the importance of this and it should be put right, if not by this Administration, then by a future one in which my party will be involved. I would dearly like this restored, not only because of the fundamental right to have a voice for "equality" at Cabinet, but because it is impossible for some matters to get priority within the current Department as it is too clogged with other matters. A separate Department would streamline the system and would be a good initiative.

I welcome the establishment of the Courts Agency and the appointment of Mr. P.J. Fitzpatrick as its chief executive. I have had many dealings with him as a most able health administrator and wish him well in this extremely difficult and onerous job. I hope it will be acknowledged that the courts and prison agencies do not absolve the Minister of responsibility to this House. There is a tendency, not exclusive to the current Administration, for agencies to be established and become unaccountable – one cannot ask direct questions about the NRA and the EPA, they are now a law unto themselves somewhere in the ether. Ministers are responsible and accountable to this House and the new committee system should be used to its fullest extent to ensure new agencies regularly report to the democratically elected Oireachtas.

Another aspect of prison conditions is the treatment of sex offenders. The Curragh camp has about 100 prisoners, who have neither a probation and welfare service nor a social worker. Arbour Hill Prison has ten treatment places per year for sex offenders. This is not adequate. If we are serious about dealing with sex offenders – not locking them up and releasing them with a potential to re-offend and do harm, but treating them to see whether we can ensure they will do no further harm – treatment must be an important element of their sentences. It is not available to them at present – obviously they must opt for it, but there are few places even for those who do.

There is a huge requirement to invest in the probation and welfare service, as others have said already this evening. In November 1997 the Government set up an independent expert group on the service and the Minister published its first report on 2 November 1998. Its main recommendation was that the number of basic grade probation and welfare officers should be increased from 148.5 to 225, with appropriate increases in the number of senior and clerical support staff. The recommendation to increase the number of probation and welfare officers was costed at £2.5 million, which is no small sum, but set against the cost of prison places – £900 per prisoner per week – it is a worthwhile investment. If one believes in the need for a probation and welfare service of adequate proportion and accepts the expert group's report, action should be taken now.

The Minister suggested the implementation of the report's recommendations should be delayed until the group has produced its second report, on which it is currently working. There is no need for that – we know enough from the first report to get to grips with this issue and provide a beefed-up probation and welfare service that will take pressure off committals to prison and do a better job for society as a whole. I hope the Minister will take account of and act on that, rather than not making a decision and hiding behind the pending report. That is not good enough from a Minister who has characterised himself as a doer; although he was much louder in Opposition than in Government, which is an unfortunate state of affairs – we had occasion recently to quote his pre-Government and Government positions on the Immigration Bill. On so many areas, from zero tolerance to libertarian attitudes towards refugees, he has gone through a transformation since entering the dark portals of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in St. Stephen's Green. I do not know what they have done to him but he has changed fundamentally and he is not the man he was in Opposition, which surprises me not a little.

Governments sometimes take a knee-jerk reaction to Opposition Bills – the civil servants' first move is to give reasons they should not be accepted. The lovely word always used in their first sentence is "flawed"– every Bill from the Opposition is flawed by definition, as if the creations of the parliamentary draftsman's office were never flawed, God protect us from that. In the last Administration there was the beginning of an acceptance that Bills should be taken on their merits – we have an elaborate committee system so we should take the principles of good Bills and run with them, and if we can create good legislation from the Opposition benches, we can make this House an effective Legislature rather than a rubber stamp for the Executive. The Executive should not be the creator of Bills, rather this House should be the shaper of legislation. Bills which have their genesis in the Opposition are just as valuable, in many instances more valuable, than those generated by the other side. There is a hope, perhaps an expectation, that backbenchers – even Government backbenchers – might generate Bills in the future, and that is a good practice, which currently happens in our neighbouring jurisdiction.

Section 3(b) applies the Bill's provisions to civil debt defaulters without specifying that a prior court judgment must exist. Is that intentional? In any case there is already provision in law for attachment of civil debtors and other similar remedies such as garnishee. In that context, we would like to see the case made as to why the additional provisions of this Bill are necessary. However, we certainly support the notion that they are necessary in the criminal context and wish to see more extensive remedies along civil lines, such as a garnishee, where a specific sum rather than a regular income is due to the fine defaulter.

I wish to query the rationale behind section 3(a) – this point was already raised on the Government side – and state that it is too limited in that it can only become operative—

The Deputy's time is exhausted.

In that case I will not pursue the detailed argument in respect of the content of the Bill. I will reserve that, hopefully, for Committee Stage. I would like the Government to give genuine consideration to the merits of this Bill.

On 6 May last a headline in the newspapers indicated that fine defaulters would face pay cuts, not prison. I have not had time to read the Minister's contribution to this debate but he stated that this will not happen for some time. If that is the case, he should accept the Bill which can be improved on Committee Stage.

I join with other Members in congratulating Deputy Jim Higgins on introducing the Bill. When in Opposition, I introduced a Bill and I know the amount of hard work that goes into preparing it. I congratulate him on his success in that regard.

Before commenting on the Bill, I join with colleagues in expressing sympathy to the Upton family – Anne and her children – and the Labour Party. It was a shock to everyone to see the life of a man as young as Pat Upton coming to such an early end. The Minister and I worked well with Pat in debates on justice in the past 18 months.

The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, explained earlier that the Government is not in a position to support the Bill. He indicated, however, that its introduction has provided a useful opportunity to debate a number of issues to which the Bill gives rise. I reiterate the commitment that the Government will have full regard to the points raised in this debate when it brings forward proposals in this area.

This is a time of fundamental change in the operation of the courts system. The establishment of the new Courts Service will represent the most fundamental reform of that system since the foundation of the State. The Government is underpinning that structural reform by making the necessary investment in resources. As the House has been informed this evening, a major £11 million investment programme in information technology has been initiated for the court system. This will mean that there is a new context in which we will be able to address the type of issues addressed in the Bill under discussion.

While I believe that all Members would agree that alternatives to custody should be used to the greatest extent possible, we should acknowledge that alternatives are widely used at present. For example, in 1997, 1,119 offenders were the subject of community service orders and a further 3.498 were subject to probation type supervision.

The most widely used non-custodial sanction by the courts is, of course, the fine. We have to be careful in considering reforms in relation to the imposition of fines that we do not undermine its existing effectiveness as a sanction. The no doubt unintentional effect of the measures proposed in the Bill could be to do just that. The incentive for people to pay fines on time could be removed. Enormous administrative burdens could be placed on the courts and the Garda and it could involve expenditure that is vastly disproportionate to the amounts of the fines involved. It is no answer to solve the problems caused for the prisons by the need to deal with people who default on fines or debts, just to create a host of problems for other agencies in the criminal justice system. The reality is that no matter what alternatives to imprisonment are introduced for such cases, prison will have to remain as the ultimate sanction in relation to the enforcement of fines or debts.

The Government believes there is some scope in this regard through the introduction of a carefully targeted attachment of earnings scheme. Work is ongoing on devising legislative proposals to achieve this.

Do not hold your breath.

The issue will be addressed in the context of the establishment of the new Courts Service and the investment programme in new technology to which I referred.

Even if the provisions of the Bill were practicable, it is simply wrong to suggest that, if implemented, they would have an appreciable effect on the existing availability of prison accommodation. Reference is made to hundreds of people being committed to prison each year for non-payment of fines but, as pointed out to the House already, the reality is that at any given time the number of prison places being taken up by persons committed for non-payment of fines or debts tends to be approximately 1 to 1.5 per cent of the prison population or about 30 places. Many of these places would be in open centres and there is no guarantee that if they were freed there would always be suitable prisoners from closed prisons available to be transferred there. Therefore, whatever the merits of the arguments about the detailed provisions contained in the Bill, the truth of the matter is that they would not have a significant effect on prison accommodation. Instead, they could have a significant effect on undermining the operation of the existing fines system.

That is not the end of the matter in the sense that even though the numbers involved are minuscule as a proportion of prison places, it is right that we should examine what can be done to reduce the number of people being committed to prison for non-payment of debts or fines. The Government is committed to bringing forward practical measures in this regard. Regretfully, we do not regard the measures in the Bill before the House as representing workable solutions in this area. However, I assure Deputy Higgins that in the continuing examination of these issues in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform full regard will be had to the proposals which he included in the Bill to see if they could be adapted in a way so that they would not give rise to the type of difficulties outlined.

I again commend Deputy Higgins for the work he put into producing the Bill and I regret that we are not in a position to commend it to the House.

I wish to share time with Deputy Jim Higgins. I take this opportunity to sympathise with the Upton family on Pat's tragic death. Dr. Upton was a great debater and possessed a sharp mind. He will be missed by everyone in the House. To his wife and family and to the Labour Party I extend my sympathy.

I congratulate Deputy Jim Higgins on introducing the Bill. Outside farming, this is one issue of which I have been more conscious than most since I was elected to this House. It is ridiculous that people should be transported, at enormous cost to the taxpayer, from Clones, Kerry or wherever to Mountjoy only to discover that there is no place available and that they will have to be transferred to another prison, again at enormous cost to the State, all because they failed to pay a fine which could have been levied from them by instalment.

In 1999, the imprisonment of debtors and defaulters is not acceptable. The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, tried to imply that the proposals put forward in the Bill by Deputy Higgins would be impossible to implement. He stated, "We are concerned that what the Bill proposes could undermine the existing system for the payment of fines, could prove vastly and disproportionately expensive to administer, could place impossible administrative burdens on both the courts and the gardaí". That assertion is far removed from reality.

Gardaí are often obliged, at enormous expense in terms of time and effort, to try to track down people who do not pay fines. I wish to give an example of this. I know a young man who was fined £1,700 but he could not afford to pay. He opted to leave the country and travel to England for a period. The young man did not like living there and returned home. Shortly after, he obtained a good job and his sister and I tried to organise a loan to enable him to pay the £1,700 fine. However, because of the pressure put on the local sergeant, the gardaí had to arrest him when they discovered he had returned and rush him to Mountjoy by car on a Friday evening. The good news for him was that, at the prison, he was given £20 to take a taxi back home and he was able to go for a drink in his local pub that night. What benefit to the State is this type of system?

This is not an isolated example – I accept it may have involved one of the larger fines that was not paid – but is a factual representation of what is happening. If the individual in question had been given adequate time or if he had had an attachment of earnings, the State would have benefited because a prison space would have been freed up and Garda time would not have been wasted. The grounds given by the Minister in refusing to accept the Bill are without foundation. Members of the Garda Síochána have told me they would like to be in a position to accept £100 of a £500 fine for the non-payment of a television licence fee. With modern technology it should be possible for social welfare recipients to have their payments reduced by £5 per week. This is in contrast to the treatment of a former Taoiseach who had a £2 million tax bill written off. We should be realistic. I urge the Minister to accept the Bill.

(Mayo): I thank all those who participated in the debate. The number who participated on all sides of the House is an indication that there is genuine interest in the issue of prison reform. The Bill does not represent root and branch reform or the antidote to all the problems that beset the prison system, it deals with a small segment which requires to be addressed. It is long overdue. The debate was enlightening and should inform Government policies and legislation on prison reform.

I thank Deputy Coveney for dealing with the core issues. He identified the costs involved in dealing with fine defaulters and civil debtors in the current fashion. I thank Deputy Ring for his valuable anecdotal examples. About 2,100 persons are picked up by gardaí in uniform and transported by patrol car to Mountjoy Prison and released within a matter of hours. They have, as a result, a track record for what is a non-custodial offence.

I am disappointed but not surprised at the Minister's reaction. He has not been open, receptive or magnanimous in the way his predecessor was. I have seldom come across such a list of spurious excuses for refusing a Bill. He said he was concerned that what the Bill proposes could undermine the existing system for the payment of fines, prove vastly and disproportionately expensive to administer, place impossible administrative burdens on the courts and the Garda Síochána and would not make a significant improvement in relation to existing pressure on prison accommodation.

The Bill would support the existing system and ensure every fine is collected. It costs £200 to £300 to transport a person to prison. The cost of Garda overtime and the number of hours lost at the local Garda station also have to be taken into account. The Minister said the number of prison places occupied by persons in this category amounts to between 1 per cent and 1.5 per cent of the prison population. On any one day this constitutes 40 spaces at an annual cost of £1.8 million or £46,000 per space. We have conservatively estimated the additional costs at £2.5 million. Three gardaí are required to accompany a person transported to prison by taxi or hackney. At a time when our prisons are chock-a-block 40 prison spaces are not an inconsiderable consideration. The Bill would give practical legislative expression to the findings of the Whitaker report on the management of offenders and the recommendations of the crime forum report which were presented in the most trenchant terms possible.

The Minister said the probation and welfare service would be overstretched but whose fault is that? The expert report presented last November recommended that 75 officials be appointed immediately. The Minister is awaiting the final report. I hope he had better news when he met representatives of the service today. It costs £2,000 per year to supervise an offender on probation. It costs £46,000 per year to keep him in prison.

I thank Deputy Flanagan for his analysis of the causes of crime, the key to the success of the Labour Party in Britain. He highlighted the need for prevention and to establish a profile of the prison population.

Deputy Foley appears to be labouring under the illusion that crime rates are falling. The number of rapes recorded has increased by 30 per cent and juvenile crime by 15 per cent. The crime figures, however, are not accurate. It is crucial that questions on crime are included in the quarterly household survey to ascertain the true figures.

Deputy Collins said the Bill was ill-conceived and would impose a heavy administrative burden. The facts speak for themselves. The costs are obvious.

Deputy Eoin Ryan said that the Bill was premature. As Deputy Howlin said, it has been on the Order Paper since May 1998. The Government has had every opportunity to introduce its own measure. The Minister and Minister of State failed to indicate a timetable. When will we see the Government's proposals?

According to the Minister, never.

(Mayo): Deputy Ardagh said it would be unfair to deduct £1 or £5 per week from people on social welfare. It would be much better to do that than throw them in jail which is the only available option.

I thank Deputy Howlin, in particular. In a thoughtful contribution he dealt with many of the core issues and shattered a number of myths and shibboleths. The Labour Party has a long track record and is committed to prison reform. The record of Senator Costello speaks for itself.

The Bill is not concerned with issues that threaten to rock the foundations of the State. The imprisonment of fine defaulters and civil debtors does not make the front pages of the newspapers. As a result of the non-acceptance of the Bill, 40 people will make the long trek to Mountjoy Prison each week. As Deputy Crawford said, some will be home before the gardaí arrive back with the patrol car. Fine defaulters and civil debtors are a silent, powerless and impoverished group whose plight is ignored.

Other jurisdictions have sought to develop an equitable system for those convicted of non-custodial offences. The neglect of those committed to prison for the non-payment of fines can only be described as disgraceful, second only to the refusal of the Government to accept the Bill. It is blithely accepted that it is the poor who are most likely to feel the bite of sanctions imposed by the courts. Jailing fine defaulters and civil debtors is a burning issue in other jurisdictions. The Bill barely raised a whimper of protest.

Studies of the prison population confirm that the vast majority of convicted offenders come from disadvantaged areas. What does that say about our society? We are passive about our fellow citizens from these areas being committed to prison for non-custodial offences. I am not optimistic that we will see the Government's measures within its term of office. Order 23, rule 7 of the District Court Rules, 1997, grades the duration of imprisonment according to the amount of unpaid financial penalty. Defaulting on a £50 fine results in a maximum sentence of five days in prison while defaulting on a £500 fine results in a maximum sentence of 90 days in prison.

We are not conforming to the norms of a civilised society. It is more than six years since the UN Human Rights Committee found Ireland to be in breach of Article 11 of this covenant because it was still possible for citizens to be incarcerated in this jurisdiction for the non-payment of debts. This underlines the need for the cessation of what is by any standards an anachronistic practice of imprisoning debtors.

Even at this late stage I ask for a rethink. If this Bill is accepted by the House tonight it could be law within four weeks. Otherwise, another 2,000 people who have not committed a criminal offence will be incarcerated over the next 12 months. They are costing the State a huge amount in terms of the money spent to produce a most negative result.

Question put.

Ahearn, Theresa.Allen, Bernard.Barrett, Seán.Belton, Louis.Boylan, Andrew.Bradford, Paul.Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).Burke, Ulick.Carey, Donal.Connaughton, Paul.Cosgrave, Michael.Coveney, Simon.Crawford, Seymour.Creed, Michael.Currie, Austin.D'Arcy, Michael.De Rossa, Proinsias.Deenihan, Jimmy.Durkan, Bernard.Farrelly, John.Ferris, Michael.Finucane, Michael.Fitzgerald, Frances.Flanagan, Charles.Gilmore, Éamon.Gormley, John.Hayes, Brian.Higgins, Jim.Higgins, Michael.Hogan, Philip.Howlin, Brendan.

Kenny, Enda.McDowell, Derek.McGahon, Brendan.McGinley, Dinny.McGrath, Paul.McManus, Liz.Mitchell, Jim.Mitchell, Olivia.Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.Naughten, Denis.Neville, Dan.Noonan, Michael.Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.O'Keeffe, Jim.O'Shea, Brian.O'Sullivan, Jan.Owen, Nora.Perry, John.Quinn, Ruairí.Rabbitte, Pat.Reynolds, Gerard.Ring, Michael.Ryan, Seán.Sargent, Trevor.Sheehan, Patrick.Spring, Dick.Stagg, Emmet.Stanton, David.Timmins, Billy.Wall, Jack.Yates, Ivan.

Níl

Ahern, Dermot.Ahern, Michael.Ahern, Noel.Andrews, David.Ardagh, Seán.Aylward, Liam.Blaney, Harry.Brady, Johnny.Brady, Martin.Brennan, Matt.Brennan, Séamus.Briscoe, Ben.Browne, John (Wexford).Byrne, Hugh.Callely, Ivor.Carey, Pat.Collins, Michael.Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.Coughlan, Mary.Cowen, Brian.Cullen, Martin.Daly, Brendan.Davern, Noel.Dempsey, Noel.Dennehy, John.Doherty, Seán.Ellis, John.Fahey, Frank.Fleming, Seán.Flood, Chris.Foley, Denis.Fox, Mildred.Gildea, Thomas.Hanafin, Mary.Harney, Mary.Haughey, Seán.

Healy-Rae, Jackie.Jacob, Joe.Keaveney, Cecilia.Kelleher, Billy.Kenneally, Brendan.Killeen, Tony.Kirk, Séamus.Kitt, Michael.Lawlor, Liam.Lenihan, Brian.Lenihan, Conor.McCreevy, Charlie.McGennis, Marian.McGuinness, John.Moffatt, Thomas.Molloy, Robert.Moloney, John.Moynihan, Donal.Moynihan, Michael.Ó Cuív, Éamon.O'Donnell, Liz.O'Donoghue, John.O'Flynn, Noel.O'Hanlon, Rory.O'Keeffe, Batt.O'Keeffe, Ned.O'Malley, Desmond.O'Rourke, Mary.Roche, Dick.Ryan, Eoin.Smith, Brendan.Smith, Michael.Treacy, Noel.Wade, Eddie.Wallace, Mary.Wright, G. V.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Barrett and Stagg; Níl, Deputies S. Brennan and Callely.
Question declared lost.